AmeriCorps VISTAs do something almost counter-cultural in today’s fast-paced world of scurrying up the proverbial ladder to bigger paychecks and positions of power. They take a year–or a summer, depending on the program–of little pay, full-time hours and few vacations to put all of their focus and energy on making an impact in an area of need in communities across the country. They sacrifice in order to serve. And it matters.
The Texas Hunger Initiative (THI) has been the beneficiary of dozens of VISTAs over the past three years, all focused on eliminating food insecurity across the state. These VISTAs bring passion, energy, fresh insight and distinct skill sets to our work, and we wouldn’t have the widespread reach or impact without them. In many ways, they are the face of our organization—the ones entrenched in the nitty-gritty, hands-on, relational aspect of our work in communities.
Today is the last day of a yearlong term for five of our wonderful VISTAs, and they are leaving us with a parting gift: meaningful reflections on their year of service. Enjoy!
CAMERON LAGRONE | THI AUSTIN | FIELD ORGANIZER
During my year as a VISTA, I worked with Austin’s health department to conduct an assessment of food assistance programs (SNAP, WIC, Child Nutrition Programs, etc.) in the Travis County area. This assessment will be used to increase access to and participation in these programs. For this project, I had three undergraduate interns who worked with me to research and collect the information. I had so much fun working on the assessment, collaborating with the interns and writing a report of their findings. It was such a good experience to see a project all the way from development to reporting and know that I put so much of my time and effort into it. I am really proud of the finished product, and I am excited to see more people gain access to three healthy meals a day with the help of these programs.
I also worked with the Lockhart Food Planning Association to help with their Summer Meals sites. Each summer, the FPA hosts three to five meal sites to help offer free meals to kids in Caldwell County. They find the sites, coordinate volunteers and monitor the sites during the summer. It was a lot of fun to help promote and monitor the sites last summer and be in the beginning stages of planning for Summer 2014.
When you begin a job like this, everyone tells you to “fake it ’til you make it” and I learned that that is absolutely how it works! I encountered so many situations throughout my year (facilitating meetings, developing project plans and presenting to large groups) in which I felt unqualified or out of my league professionally. I learned that if you approach each of these situations with confidence and trust that you DO know what you are talking about, then people respect you and are so gracious when things don’t go as planned. And, after a while, it stops feeling like “faking it” and you realize you have become qualified and capable. If you are willing to try, you can learn so much during your VISTA year and come away with many valuable skills.
Even in a city as politically and socially active as Austin, it can be tough to identify the key people/projects to get plugged into that are really making an impact. Once you do, though, you are in! I loved making connections and finding out who is making a difference and how to partner with them in their efforts. That’s why I was so happy to find the health department’s project and be able to get involved in the first year. I know that that project will make a difference in the overall health of the Austin community.
Any time that I got to do something for the first time – presenting in front of a large group, going to a meeting with key hunger stakeholders by myself, interviewing/supervising my interns, going to happy hour with key partners – was a highlight of the year for me. Each one of these felt like a professional/personal milestone and one step closer toward the professional woman that I want to be.
I will be attending the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall. I will be working on a Master of Public Affairs, studying social policy development and analysis. I guess I will officially begin calling myself an Austinite!
SARA MARPLE | THI SAN ANTONIO | HUNGER FREE SAN ANTONIO COORDINATOR
Throughout the past year, I’ve been working to build a coalition of community members willing to fight anti-hunger issues at the local level. There were so many times this year that I didn’t think it would happen or be sustainable or actually work. But now that my work is coming to a close, I can see how much of an impact has really been made. Our coalition isn’t perfect or all figured out by any means, but I know there is a good group of people who are passionate and eager to work together to see these problems discontinue. Even though I wasn’t always excited to work on this project, it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had and one that I will never forget.
The most impactful learning experience during my time as a VISTA was having to live on SNAP. This wasn’t something my family members were exactly thrilled about, so it really pushed me to memorize the facts, and figure out why I supported it. It was also just a frustrating experience to see what so many individuals and families have to go through to get it, and then have to fight to make it stretch out for the entire month. I know we VISTAs are fortunate to get the full amount of SNAP benefits possible, but there was a month where I spent every last dollar of my benefits and fretted about making all of my food last. Not only is it tough for families to make the money last, but it can be pretty humiliating to use your Lone Star card at the register. This whole experience just makes me want to fight harder for reform and fight the stigma of SNAP.
Coming into this year I thought I had a good grasp of the poverty issues in Texas and the rest of the country, but after hearing so many stories, listening to webinars, and reading article after article, I realized I wasn’t as knowledgeable as I thought I was. Hearing stories from people in San Antonio is what has stuck with me the most though.
One of my favorite memories from the year was getting to be a panel speaker at the Together at the Table: Hunger Summit last October. I got to speak alongside two other great women about our experiences with community organizing. Because THI trusted me enough to speak at a conference about my work, it made me so much more confident in what I was doing every day. It was also pretty cool to speak in front of other NYCCAH VISTAs that day, and afterward a lot of them told me how impressed they were with THI for letting a VISTA be part of a breakout session at such a big conference.
Starting Monday, I will be transitioning into the Child Hunger Outreach Specialist position with THI here in San Antonio until the end of summer. After that, I will be attending grad school for a Masters in Social Work. I’ve been accepted into both of the schools I applied to, now I just have to decide which one to go to!
CHRIS RHOTON | THI CENTRAL OFFICE | CHILD HUNGER PROGRAM SPECIALIST
In thinking back about the projects I worked on as a VISTA over the past year, a couple I particularly enjoyed come to mind. It was a brief, small thing but I had a lot of fun helping create a Summer Meals advertisement to play in movie theaters. I also enjoyed writing a blog post for THI.
Some of the most impactful learning experiences during my time as a VISTA happened whenever I got to hear Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, speak. He has a gift for getting people charged up about fighting poverty. I also learned a lot about how many different factors contribute to poverty and hunger issues, and how pervasive and comprehensive our solutions will have to be.
One of my favorite experiences was getting to participate in the Hunger Summit (the small part of it that I got to see, anyway). It was inspiring to be surrounded by people who are dedicated to making a change in their communities.
What’s next for me?
I’ll be on the corner of 6th street and Franklin playing the squeezebox. Bring your change! But seriously, I’m looking for work in a justice-oriented nonprofit on the East Coast. My wife and I want to be closer than 800 miles from our families.
AMY SATTERGREN | THI WACO | PROJECT COORDINATOR
This past week, I have been reflecting over my year serving at Texas Hunger Initiative as an Americorps VISTA. Unfortunately, I can’t quite say that hunger in Waco was eradicated because of my presence here at THI, but thankfully my team carries on that dream and strategic goal of ending hunger. I’ve learned and experienced so much. The way I see people, serve people, and work alongside people has been refined and changed.
For one, the language I use when speaking about those who are experiencing food insecurity or who may be living below the poverty line has become extremely important to me. I want to always be uplifting to those whom I am speaking about. I also want to be authentic, honest, and to divulge the reality of our country’s economic and social situation to people in a way that they will not only hear, but listen. Everyone is different. We see differently, we learn differently, and we speak differently. Everyone comes from a different background and has experienced life in a different way. But before I totally become redundant, because we are humans and (I believe) we were all created in the image of God, I am certain we all have the potential to come together and be unified. In this case, we organize around ending hunger. We can identify with each other, despite our different backgrounds, because we have all experienced some type of struggle. I’ve found most people generally want to help people amidst a struggle or hard time, they just don’t always know how.
One of the most important concepts I’ve learned this past year in anti-poverty work is to be strategic and effective in addressing the complex issues. I used to believe that passion was all we needed to eliminate poverty. Yes, I personally believe that love or call to do justice needs to be the driving force behind all that we do in this work. However, if we want to create a change in a broken system, it needs to be collaborative. The federal government, the passionate faith-based community, and everyone in between, needs to be unified to end hunger and poverty. The strengths, resources, and assets in this country are incalculable—but our nation needs a reality check and a condition-of-heart check while we’re at it. Even more important than providing resources, we need to hear the voices of those who are experiencing food insecurity, because, as a brilliant, deeply-thinking woman once told me, “people are experts of their own experiences.”
Some highlights of the year?
With the risk of dog attacks and Regional Office bonding, summer and afterschool meals flyers were canvassed across Waco neighborhoods. I got to witness passionate, invested individuals fight hunger in the community of Marlin through commitment and collaboration. The documentary, A Place at the Table, was screened for hundreds of people in Waco this year through community events and the Baylor Line camp. (Seeing it four times was enough for me, but I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.) I highly valued the partnership we’ve had with the Waco McLennan County Public Health District. In collaboration with an MSW class at Baylor, the Health District will generate a report comparing the availability and prices of fresh foods in grocery stores and corner stores. For the qualitative piece of this ongoing food desert project, I got to hear from over 75 community members about their experiences with access to healthy food in Waco. I learned that the words “food insecurity” and “hunger” are not necessarily terminology to just be thrown around. For some, it is a way of life. One man told me that “if you mismanage your money one week—you just don’t eat.”
My hope is that everyone who has been privileged to never experience the impact that poverty has on health, education, and home life will never turn away from the reality of poverty in our country. My other hope is that those who are experiencing poverty will one day be able to work hard, to earn fair wages, and to have a food-secure home. As I move on to get my Master in Social Work here at Baylor this next fall, I’m thankful for this experience as my foundation. Professional life for this kid is just beginning, but Christ has laid a passion for people on my heart since I was a child. I’m thankful for those I’ve worked alongside (my office mates, people in our community, and people across the nation). I’m honored to continue this work and to have the opportunity to spread God’s desire for those who are struggling to be cared for, defended, encouraged, and loved.
As the social media and communications coordinator for THI, I had the opportunity to be involved with many exciting projects. I helped create THI’s first-ever social media photo contest, called “TwEAT Your Breakfast,” and designed the program for THI’s annual hunger summit in October. Most recently, I designed the 116-page Texas School Breakfast Report Card. It was a huge project, but well worth it! I gained a lot of valuable experience in communications through my work this year.
Something I’ve discovered this year is that I’m passionate about using my communication and design skills in the nonprofit world. It’s so rewarding knowing that what I do can make a difference (even if it’s small).
What else did I learn?
One of the funniest assignments I was given over the past year required me to enlarge a photo our director on my laptop, and draw hair on his head using Photoshop. He had a buzz cut at the time of the photo and there were some sparse spots, and we needed to use the photo for a website banner. :)
Where am I off to now?
I’m exited to say that I will be staying on at the THI Central Office as the social media and communications specialist! Looking forward to continuing to work with this wonderful team!
If you’re interested in joining the fight against hunger by serving as a AmeriCorps Vista for the summer or for a yearlong term, visit the THI website to learn more. (The deadline to apply to be a Summer VISTA is April 3).